UVA Today Blog

Semester at Sea: Vietnam

Rowing down the river toward home, outside Can Tho, Vietnam
Downtown Ho Chi Minh City

Downtown Ho Chi Minh City

Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.

SAS students had been told that Vietnam would be the first of the “gritty” countries. Our pre-port lecturers hammered out the warnings: travel with a group, cover your shoulders, keep an eye on your wallet, and avoid rides from unmarked taxis. With this in mind, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Americans often link ‘Vietnam’ with either picturesque rice fields or the controversial, sixteen-year Vietnam/American War. But Vietnam isn’t a postcard or a war – it’s a whole country.

When you step into downtown Ho Chi Minh City (also called Saigon), the traffic overwhelms you: thousands of motorbikes transform the streets into this electric, exhaust-breathing river as soon as the sun goes down. Each bike will carry two, three or even four passengers – whole families – and will come within inches of colliding with each other, or pedestrians, at every intersection. At night, families and friends will congregate in the sidewalks outside these tiny hole-in-the wall restaurants and will chow down on the most delicious (and cheapest) meals – warm pho (noodle) and rice dishes, with beef and herbs and tons of sauces and seasonings. Add the packed markets and street vendors looking for your business, and the city is loud, fantastic-smelling chaos.

Downtown Ho Cho Minh City

Downtown Ho Cho Minh City

After a couple days in Ho Chi Minh, I traveled with a group to the Mekong Delta, where we booked a home stay in a village outside Can Tho, the major trading city on the river. When we arrived, we found that there was no A/C, hot water, or electricity in our rooms. We did, however, have hammocks and bicycles – which, when you’re in the delta, is all you really need.

The home stay was incredible. The rows of houses built right along the river wouldn’t amount to much by American standards – most were made from metal sheets and wood that the families had either bought or found somewhere, according to our host family. All the houses had open doors and no A/C (though I did see a few TVs), laundry hanging the yards and wooden boats floating outside on the river. Everywhere I biked, many residents would wave and yell out the only English word they knew, “hello!” Still, I could talk easily with most children in the neighborhood – because they’re learning English in school.

Rowing down the river toward home, outside Can Tho, Vietnam

Rowing down the river toward home, outside Can Tho, Vietnam

My group took a boat trip to the floating markets of Can Tho, where people from all over southern Vietnam sell tons (literally) of produce every morning. We explored all over the delta area – a rice factory, rice fields, a vegetable farm, and we learned to make fresh rice noodles at an outdoor factory. The tour was humbling; after we’d just been to ultra-urban Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, here we were in Vietnam, the world’s #2 producer of rice, where these people with simple lifestyles work everyday (in 90-plus degree heat) to harvest food that feeds the rest of the world.

An early morning cruise through the Mekong Delta’s floating markets

An early morning cruise through the Mekong Delta’s floating markets

Back in Ho Chi Minh, I learned alongside many others on Semester At Sea about the effect of the Vietnam/American War on southern Vietnam. After visiting the War Remnants Museum and underground Cu Chi tunnels where much of the fighting took place, we learned how the war devastated southern Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City. It’s still rebuilding, and traces of napalm gas, or “Agent Orange,” sprayed by U.S. troops during the war are still causing birth defects in Vietnamese babies.

The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

As an American, learning about the effects of our government’s war against this country, after spending a week being treated like the best kind of guest by its people, made the trip to Vietnam one of the most touching and humbling weeks I’ve spent. This country is full of such laid back and welcoming people, and for a place that’s been through so much, you could see that there’s huge economic promise – new skyscrapers were springing up over the old buildings and markets in Ho Chi Minh City and even downtown Can Tho. Major financial forecasters have predicted that Vietnam will be the fastest-growing emerging economy (PwC ’08) and break into the world’s top 20 GDP list (Goldman Sachs ’06) by the year 2025.

One of the great things about Semester At Sea is that students get a comparative glimpse of where these countries stand in the world – how fast they’re changing, what their problems are and where they’re innovating. Vietnam is one of those evolving places, and it’ll be cool to see where it heads in the coming years. Now that we know more, many of my friends onboard have already said that they want to go back as English teachers, to do what they can to help this country that’s bursting with opportunities in industry and education – along with really, really delicious food.

In Can Tho, I also wrangled myself into a visit with an English Language class at the local Tay Do University. My group actually got to help with a lesson, and I’m writing about the experience on the Semester At Sea webpage later this week – stay tuned!


Spring Break in Cville

Spring Break is a quiet week on Grounds, but there are always some students who decide to stick around. On Thursday, the University’s Instagram account featured a few who were willing to share how they are passing the time. Here’s what they said:


U.Va. Men’s Tennis, 2013 NCAA Champions, Visit the White House


Editor’s note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is blogging about her Semester at Sea experience. If you’ve missed her earlier entries, start at the beginning: Ready to Set Sail on Semester At Sea

Karst rock formations rising up from the banks of the Li River.

[Karst rock formations rising up from the banks of the Li River.]

As Americans, we hear so much about China. It’s the up-and-coming world superpower, the most populous country in the world, holder of our national debt, maker of our goods, communist, polluted, and sender of thousands of college students to the U.S. While I can’t take an incredibly insightful stance on any of these issues after spending six days in China, the country definitely surprised me, and I learned a lot about the way it works. I spent most of my time in China in the towns of Guilin and Yangshuo, located in southern China. These places are known for their unique terrain and outdoorsy things to do – they’re away from the cities where the majority of Chinese people live, and even in the rainy, 30-degree weather, all the area attractions were sold out (arriving in China at the end of Spring Festival, the Lunar New Year, had a lot to do with it). You won’t see a ton of skyscrapers here like you might in Shanghai, but you will see gorgeous karst rock towering above the city.

Downtown Yangshuo

Downtown Yangshuo

I spent the first day in Yangshuo, the site of a huge outdoor market built alongside the mountains, and I had a lot of fun learning to haggle with vendors. The next day, I visited the Longsheng rice terraces, about two hours outside of Guilin, and had an opportunity to visit the villages where the Yao people live. They are a minority group in China known for growing really long hair – and they’ve become a tourist attraction themselves. The rice terraces they help cultivate, though cold and barren for the winter, were absolutely gorgeous.

Cable cars climb up the Longji “Dragon’s Backbone” rice terraces.

Cable cars climb up the Longji “Dragon’s Backbone” rice terraces.

While I think “culture shock” is a strong way to put it, it definitely hit me that we were out of Western culture in China. Though very few people spoke English, my friend Francesca and I were able to get along well with the help of our map (with Mandarin), a few phrases we had learned from Semester at Sea, and our phone calculators we could use to show prices while haggling. There were a few some major culture changes we noticed in mainland China, across Shanghai, Guilin/Yangshuo, and in the Longsheng villages:

Aggressiveness: In a country with 1.4 billion people, it pays to be ahead of the curve. We noticed that people were very intent on achieving their objectives, whether they were boarding the train or aircraft, selling you something, or driving in traffic – no one was afraid to be vocal and assertive.

Traffic and general living conditions: Many parts of the mainland are much less developed than the bigger cities in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, and the greatest hazard for foreign travelers in China and many of the countries, Semester at Sea told us, is traffic. In Guilin, many of the stoplights flashed only yellow, and the streets were always packed, so both drivers and pedestrians had to be ultra-aware. We also got to experience Chinese bathrooms (squatters), and found that a lot of comforts we take for granted weren’t as prominent in China – like heating in restaurants or on buses, and the availability of soap and toilet paper.

After a day of walking in this cold, tiny Longsheng village, there was a lot of exciting information in this sign.

After a day of walking in this cold, tiny Longsheng village, there was a lot of exciting information in this sign.

Media: We did notice the government influence in the media. The big difference is in TV, where all of the stations had a CCTV logo in the corner – meaning they were government-sponsored. I also got to read an English-translated newspaper during my flight to Guilin, and the political sections were written in with a very pro-government stance; the decision to drill for oil, for example, should be lauded because it was going to both reduce pollution (?) and improve the economy.

In our experience, so much of adjusting to this new place was about having a good attitude, accepting your situation, and being assertive in asking questions. We did our best to blend in to the often-packed streets in China, and we had a great first-hand experience taking a sold-out overnight sleeper train – with triple-stacked bunks – to meet the ship in Hong Kong. Almost all the SASers came back from their various destinations in China with the same thing on their minds: going somewhere warm!


Editor’s note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is blogging about her Semester at Sea experience. If you’ve missed her earlier entries, start at the beginning: Ready to Set Sail on Semester At Sea

Ship in Japan

Jan. 29: pulling in to the Port of Yokohama, with Mt. Fuji in the distance

In a country where public transportation is fast, cheap, and comes with English subtitles, the number of amazing experiences you can rack up in six days in Japan can blow you away. The amount of places I visited and things I did this week even surprised me, and I know I won’t have the room to post pictures and write about everything I did. Still, since this was my first experience abroad, I learned a lot about the country of Japan and how I function as an American within it.

The Japanese people really made the visit. Every time I had a question, I could ask (or mime) to a local Japanese person, and he or she would answer, in their best English, and often would walk me straight to my destination – even if it was out of their way. While the stereotype is of a quiet and reserved people, the Japanese are incredibly hospitable and friendly to foreigners.

My friend Grace and I stayed in Tokyo the first two nights with the Katayamas, a family I met through a visit from their daughter, Namiko. She is a Japanese agriculture teacher who visited Illinois a few years ago, and she met my family during her stay in our hometown. After hearing that I was coming to Japan, her parents invited Grace and me to stay at their home in Tokyo – and they could have not spoiled us more! They had wonderful English and were able to share much with us about their current lives, their histories, and Japanese current events. We talked about U.S. and Japanese education systems, the government, and a number of topics that I couldn’t have imagined I’d be discussing with a Japanese person, and they were very informed about America and the state of its affairs. They also had great senses of humor, and asked that they call us Okahsan and Otousan (Mom and Dad) while we stayed at their home. Okahsan, Namiko’s mother, also took us around Tokyo to places that we wouldn’t have had the first idea on how to find. Grace and I felt so blessed by having the opportunity to meet them, and we both agreed that we would love return to Japan again just to see them again. Tokyo Olympics in 2020, maybe?

Katayama family

From left: Namiko Katayama, Miyoko Katayama (Okahsan), me, Grace, Tsuneo Katayama (Otousan)]

I should note that Semester at Sea also puts together tons of home stays for many of the countries we port at. They are a wonderful way to get to know people, and I hope to do more in the future!

Japan also made me think about how much my perception of a place is shaped by the media. I was excited to see all of the places that I had previously seen on TV, like the Shibuya “Scramble Crossing”:


Shibuya intersection

The famous Shibuya intersection in Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the world.

Or the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, where scenes from Memoirs of a Geisha were filmed:



Thousands of orange torii line the path to the various Shinto shrines at Fushimi.

Japan is probably the most Westernized country that our ship will visit, and you could tell from the One Direction billboards and Justin Bieber t-shirts for sale everywhere in the Harajuku district, a hangout for wacky-dressed teenagers. Even at Shibuya, the “Times Square” of Tokyo, the largest store was a Starbucks – which Otousan said was fairly new, as the inundation of coffee shops in Japan is a recent phenomenon taken from the Western world.

Elsewhere in Japan I met up with other SAS students and travelled to Kyoto and Kobe, where we saw a number of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and knowledge from my Religions of the World class came to good use.


Asakusa Shrine

Visitors or Asakusa Shrine wash themselves in smoke to purify themselves and their surroundings before visiting the kami, or ancestors/gods.

But one of my favorite parts of Japan was seeing the way they manage their space. Despite living in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the Japanese create these small inlets of quiet spaces that are ingenious: you’ll find a silent walkway underneath a major highway, a quiet shrine and garden on a side street of a major shopping area, and even many of the city’s small local restaurants have this peaceful, warm atmosphere about them when you enter through the nearly soundproof doors. The hectic places juxtaposed with the serene parks and quiet escapes reflect Japan well – modern but conservative, and fast-paced while warm and welcoming.

Other highlights of the trip:

- Finding a $1 pack of sushi at a convenience store

- Eating some $35 sushi from Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market

- Watching elementary-age Japanese kids doing bike tricks at a local skate park, with American rap music playing in the background

- Riding the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto (an 8 hour car ride in 2 hours)

- Eating mochi, the most amazing Japanese dessert of all the Japanese desserts

- Visiting Kobe University and talking with students over their delicious $3 cafeteria lunch

- Soaking up in the hot springs outside Kobe

- Finding a gorgeous waterfall along a woodland area five minutes from the ultra-urban Shin Kobe Station

- Impressing Japanese vendors by knowing the proper way to say thank you (arigato gozaimuss!)

Back on the ship, we have 48 hours to debrief from Japan and prepare for our next port in Shanghai, China. To be continued…